Zeigletics, a fictitious publicly traded company that sold portable toilets to Chad was published about as an April Fool’s stunt in the Motley Fool newsletter in 1994 as a stunt to expose the fraud in online services and financial bulletin boards that hyped up “penny stocks” at the time.
Think Wall Street Bets and GME, online services were hyping up “penny stocks”, stocks selling for under a dollar a share, causing their prices to be temporarily inflated, and highly overvalued. The early days of the internet brought about this fear of scams while trying to balance freedom of speech and press.
The Motley Fool, a financial and investing advice company, was created to combat the craze and misinformation around stocks that was driven by the acceleration of the internet. Tom and David Gardner started the Motley Fool in 1993 as a print newsletter that published about financial markets with a twist of humor.
The Zeigletics exposé was pivotal for the Motley Fool because it proved to be significant in tackling the problem of misinformation on the internet, so much so that the modest print newsletter garnered the attention of the Wall Street Journal. Soon thereafter, America Online (AOL) partnered with the Motley Fool to help them launch their website in 1994 under the URL fool.com.
Ditching their print newsletter, the Motley Fool offered satirical and digestible investing advice on the internet, and built an interactive community with a forum that encouraged people to swap investing advice. Unlike traditional news sources, there was no demand for the Motley Fool to produce unbiased information.
The first archive of fool.com on the Wayback machine dates to December 27, 1996.
From the website in 1996, we can find the following offerings:
- An Investment Guide: 13 Steps to Investing
- The Fool Portfolio: A real stock portfolio run by the Motley Fool that publishes its results every evening
- Lunchtime and Evening News: Daily news about the markets and performance that day
- Today’s Pitch: A daily stock pitch
The intended purpose of the Motley Fool is transparent in its name, which was inspired by the court jester, known as the Fool, in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. From their website, “The court jester, known as the Fool, could speak the truth to the king and queen without having his head lopped off. The Fools of yore entertained the court with humor that instructed as it amused. More importantly, the Fool was never afraid to question conventional wisdom”. Its intention was to speak the truth and offer wisdom to investors in a light-hearted manner.
The website’s high quality offerings, which are updated on the daily clearly provide their hoped for truth and advice. Though, their website’s design hints that the Motley Fool offered something more. Their web design incorporates playful graphics of jesters, and maintained playful names to all of its offerings such as “Foolball, The Fool’s School”. Intentional or not, to consumers, the Motley Fool’s website design encouraged the message that anyone can invest by presenting users with a free page that looks unintimidating and casually ingraining humor into all its advice.
Given the nature of forums, and the active participation of consumers within forums, the spirit of the Motley Fool was actively upheld and shaped by its consumers, as they were given the chance to participate in a community and share investing advice. This would allow people of all different backgrounds to come together and share their wisdom.
Because the Motley Fool provided comedic and easy-to-read investing advice, it catered to a range of patrons, from those who are already financially versed to those who had no knowledge. Bringing casualness to Wall Street is a trend that already existed, with Peter Lynch’s best-selling book “One Up On Wall Street” from 1989, who preached the message that anyone can invest and that those with no financial knowledge can even have an upper-hand. This belief however was sped up by the internet, and could come into fruition by websites like Motley Fool.
The Motley Fool embraced that. On their current website they now state “we aim to speak the truth about money and investing…and to make financial advice accessible to people of all backgrounds and experience levels”.
The popularity of the Motley Fool was largely a result of its partnership with AOL in August 1994, which gave them a featured position on the AOL homepage. As a result, by the end of 1995, the Motley Fool had 250,000 visitors a month.
The modern-day website of the Motley Fool is different in both appearance and the services it offers.
As with all modern-day websites, its appearance is flashier, the pictures are bigger, and its evidently more commercialized as compared to its modest beginnings. The Motley Fool no longer provides its simple daily updated market overviews, its community forum, or its portfolio performance information. From its design, it is clear that the site now prioritizes putting out educational articles as well as market updates and stock picks.
When opening the website, the first image presented is an advertisement for their “Stock Advisor” service, a $199/year subscription that gives users access to their stock picks, reporting a 631% return rate since its conception, as compared to S&P 500’s 135% return rate. Stock Advisor is one of their many premium service offerings, which range from $149 – $13,999/year. Through these premium services, consumers can access the Motley Fool’s portfolio and other financial advice.
Is the Motley Fool selling out or were they forced into this model to keep their business alive? They face a variety of competitors today that offer something similar. Their previous forum is comparable to the reddit forum r/wallstreetbets, filled with memes, but also advice that generates serious returns and influence. Several different companies now also provide the kind of digestible market news that they do, many of which have a daily newsletter with updated market information, such as The Morning Brew or Robinhood Snacks. It is reasonable that the homey nature of the Motley Fool had to evolve.
The Motley Fool’s evolved mission of accessibility in finance arguably holds true more than ever now with their emphasis on educational content and deemphasis on analytical market news. This is shown through their current day navigation bar, which has the following categories: services, investing basics, stock market, and retirement. These categories show that their educational content is their website’s core, while current market news is a side piece. This caters better to the newbies of the investing world, who can also find a variety of helpful resources to get started on building their portfolio and understanding complex investment concepts. Their modern website however fails to take advantage of the wide array of tools that the internet offers to make information easy to consume like complex and interactive infographics. The website still provides quality market news and stock pitches, but their website is not really more user friendly, and possibly even harder to navigate now compared to their simple design.
Their website previously did not have as much introductory content, so now it’s more catered towards beginners, despite still offering lots of market news. The Motley Fool is still one of the leaders in basic investment education. Its meaning to consumers has shifted overtime from a creative force that was blatantly humorous and satirical albeit informational in offering ways to keep up with the daily changes in the market, to a more serious space to learn how to invest, and offering its humorous content on the side.
Despite wanting to cater to the less financially versed, Motley Fool took away from this mission by taking away their goofy titles and silly graphics, by replacing them with serious stock photos of couple’s planning their financial futures together. The reduction in its overt cleverness and added blandness could be a move to reach a larger variety of people, but its significance has likely diminished because of its more ordinary guise.
Whatever way these changes may be interpreted, their innovativeness in wanting to democratize a world that used to be closed off to the elite is admirable. Few groups at the time took such active strides to open the gated doors to information about investing to everyone, and were able to make their presence on the internet. For reference, Bloomberg, which offers financial market news started their website around the same time in 1993.
The Motley Fool was innovative, and its vision evokes a similar feeling to Robinhood’s vision to “democratize finance for all” because of the ways it tried to bring casualness to wall street through the primitive means of the internet in the 90s. Although their original purpose was merely to offer advice, the consumption of their offerings demonstrated their ability to give courage to those who otherwise felt like they could never learn about finance.